The General Election Unfolds

Reading through a post-Potomac primary write-up in the International Herald-Tribune, a short quote from Sen. Barack Obama leapt out at me:

“We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control,” Obama said. “The fallout from the housing crisis that’s cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle, it was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington.”

Presumably, when Barack Obama condemns Washington, he means the Bush administration. Such criticism may be deserved, but it begs the question, is a United States Senator not a part of Washington? During the three years he represented Illinois in the senate, why wasn’t Sen. Obama’s “imagination” great enough that he could offer legislation to avert the crisis? Why wasn’t his “leadership” sufficient to pass bills to soften the blows? In fact, Obama’s reaction to the subprime crisis is characteristic of his career as a national politician. On this and a myriad of other issues, the senator’s legislative history falls short of his rhetoric.

Now, it might be that Obama, like a great many of his generation, believes in an imperial presidency. (Certainly President Bush, to the nation’s detriment, has assumed himself to be this kind of president in foreign affairs and law and order.) What good, they might ask, could a single senator do? Yet that hasn’t stopped other young senators from amassing impressive legislative records, precisely because they recognize their constitutional duty: to make the laws that govern the country. And on that score — the very reason he should be a senator — Barack Obama fails to impress.

An uncharitable assessment — and as a Republican I feel it a duty to offer him one — might be that Sen. Obama has maintained a low legislative profile for the sake of running for president, which he has arguably been doing since the day he was sworn-in to replace Sen. Paul Simon and started writing The Audacity of Hope. By not taking any great stands for or against legislation, by working as a junior co-sponsor for noncontroversial legislation, and by not spending any political capital, he reduced the ammunition that opponents could use against him in the campaign. Thus, by being no walk, Barack Obama could make the focus of his campaign all talk.

Obama’s national legislative record, even on presumably friendly sources like Wikipedia, is remarkably thin. Even his great “accomplishment” of opposing the war in Iraq isn’t truly part of his record since Obama wasn’t even a senator during the votes on the war, so his criticism has the wonderful benefit of hindsight. Ross Douthat rightly calls this “Obama’s glass jaw,” but Sen. Hillary Clinton, for all her effort, has failed to land a blow there. The closest she came was during the New Hampshire debate outburst when she rightly condemned invoking change-as-rhetoric instead of change-as-action, but in that case she attacked John Edwards instead of Obama.

One would expect Sen. McCain, the likely Republican nominee, to zero in on Obama’s weakness. Instead, McCain has trotted out right-wing memes to attack Obama. From the same IHT article:

“I respect him and the campaign that he has run,” McCain said of Obama, after a question about his decision to focus on Obama and his message of hope in his victory speech on Tuesday night. “But there is going to come a time when we have to get into specifics, and I’ve not observed every speech that he’s given, obviously, but they are singularly lacking in specifics.”

“It’s not an accident that he has, I think, according to National Journal, the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate,” he said. “I have one of the most conservative.”

This sort of attack is likely to fail for several reasons.

Firstly, thanks to the dominance of conservative themes during the past 30 years, most voters under 50 have little concept of “liberal” as a “tax-and-spend” “big government” philosophy, to use a pair of Reagan-era talking points. Think about it: they didn’t suffer through the Johnson-Nixon-Carter years of liberal intervention policies, so for them, “liberal” doesn’t resonate as a negative label.

Secondly, for many people, “liberal” has actually become a positive label, not because they support high taxes and the welfare state, but because progressive politicos, especially on the Internet, have framed the term to mean being anti-Bush and anti-Iraq War. Many of my moderate friends started calling themselves “liberals” for this reason, even though actual progressive policies would leave a sour taste in their mouths. The Obama campaign is seemingly aware of this, and that’s why his speeches are stripped bare of “specifics” that could scare away the I-hate-the-GOP-now-but-I’m-not-really-a-leftist-types. (See Sullivan, Andrew.)

Finally, about those specifics: it may upset Sen. McCain that Obama talks in vagaries, but he needs to realize that he’s not running against a politician so much as a brand name. As Patrick Ruffini observed in an excellent post:

Most campaigns never get beyond talking issues. The sophisticated ones run on attributes in the foreground (cares about people like me) tied to issues in the background (a health care plan). The Obama effort seems to be something wholly different. The campaign and its marketing seems designed to evoke aspirational feelings that have virtually no political meaning whatsoever. This is what great brands do. They evoke feelings that have virtually zero connection to product attributes and specifications. … [italics in original]

Accordingly, the relative inertness of the Obama campaign is key to its marketing strength. Barack Obama equals good politics the way Nike equals good shoes, and McCain’s success will depend on getting some people to believe that McCain is Adidas to Obama’s Nike — that is to say, to prove himself an acceptable alternative to the “buyer.” However, thus far, the McCain campaign has failed to demonstrate it can properly brand the senator as a national candidate. After all, unlike the primaries, you cannot win the general election just because you’re the last man standing. You need a bigger appeal.

In conclusion, if Sen. McCain runs against Obama in the fall, he must frame the discussion as a contest between a man who brought change to American politics and a man who has merely talked about it; between a man who offers results and a man who offers hope of results; and between a man who came to Washington to work and a man who came to Washington to run for president. If, on the other hand, McCain resorts to sticking Obama repeatedly with the “liberal” label or attacking positions that have broad popular support, he will lose.

And massively so.

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